Two years ago, junior Bruce Nelson (6-4, 290) made his first start against Nebraska at left tackle as a 260-pound redshirt freshman. Now as a junior he is listed at 290 and starting at center with 23 career starts under his belt.
Senior Alonzo Cunningham (6-4, 305) was rushed into action in 1998 way before he was ready. As a redshirt freshman at right tackle that year, he really struggled against teams like Wisconsin, especially in pass blocking. After 27 starts mostly at left and right tackle and constant improvement, he is now ready to have a very good senior year at right guard. Alonzo and Bruce now only now have a lot more experience than a few years ago, but they are much stronger and quicker from working in Coach Doyle's strength and conditioning program.
The other returning linemen do not have as much game experience as Nelson and Cunningham, but they have all been around the block. Junior LG Eric Steinbach (6-7, 284) started a few games at the end of the 1999 season, and made a big difference in the Iowa offensive production last season when he was healthy. Sophomore RT Sam Aiello (6-5, 310) also struggled with injuries and inexperience last year, but still started 5 games.
Sophomore LT Robert Gallery started 10 games last year between tight end and right tackle. Although his technique and feel for playing OL can still improve, Robert has the potential to be the best NFL prospect of all the experienced linemen; he has a huge frame (6-7, 300) and the athleticism of being a former TE. In fact, the Iowa OL is very athletic when you consider that Gallery, Nelson, and Steinbach are all former tight ends in the Iowa program. Their combination of speed and size is one big reason why all three might be playing on Sundays some day.
For the first time in many years, Iowa actually has a solid two-deep. Senior tackle David Porter (6-7, 305) and junior guard Andy Lightfoot (6-6, 284) have 14 starts between them. Junior Pete Traynor (6-3, 290) and sophomore Eric Rothwell (6-3, 300) do not have much in the way of starting experience, but both have been in the program for at least three years. Sophomore Kory Borchers (6-6, 290) rounds out the two-deep and is the least experienced as he was formerly a defensive lineman, but the coaches love his size, feet, and attitude.
Ladell Betts rushed for 1,090 yards last season, but run blocking is where the OL really needs to step forward. The team rushing average per game was under 100 yards, and in the Big Ten Conference, that will not do. The OL also gave up way too many sacks last year, but the group actually has already proven that they can excel in that phase. As a result of not gaining enough yards on first down and not being able to run the ball enough to keep defenses honest, teams like Ohio State and Minnesota were able to load up on blitzing, which resulted in poor pass protection numbers last year. If the OL can establish the line of scrimmage and open up running lanes for RB Ladell Betts and FB Jeremy Allen on a consistent basis, pass blocking and keeping defenses off balance will be much easier to do. As a result, this edition of the Iowa Offense might look closer to the 1984 version rather than the 1998 version.
After all of the problems the last few years, this group is due for some breaks. Part of getting breaks might be good health, which has not been the case recently. Part of suffering an exceptional amount of injuries has to do with bad luck, while weaker, younger, and less experienced players are also more likely to get hurt. Iowa has had to play younger linemen who may not have been ready in previous years, but now that experience should directly help. After being at the 2001 Iowa Football Media Day, it is very obvious that the Iowa OL is big enough and strong enough to bang with the best teams around the country. They may not have been physically big and strong enough to run block two years ago, but this year it should be much different.
The two-deep is strong and solid, and if junior Ben Sobieski (6-5, 305) can contribute, the OL might really make some noise. Ben has 12 career starts, including every game in 1998. His other start was at the end of his true freshman season in 1997, making him the first true freshman linemen to start since 1994. However, because he has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries, Coach Ferentz is not counting on Ben in the team plans right now.
Much like Gallery, Nelson, and Steinbach, Sobieski also could play on Sundays if he gets healthy. He was recruited as a DL and has the feet, quickness, and size to be a very good tackle. His upper body strength is not where it was before the injuries, but he feels he is ready to play. If that is the case, he would probably break into the lineup at tackle with Gallery at the opposite spot. Can you imagine a healthy lineup with Gallery, Sobieski, Steinbach, Cunningham, and Nelson?
The future looks good as well, since only Cunningham and Porter are graduating from the two-deep after this season. Besides the people mentioned above, the Hawks had a great recruiting season this last year as they signed Blake Larson (6-7, 304), Ben Cronin (6-5, 270), and Brian Ferentz (6-2, 265). Larson gets the most attention and might be further ahead physically at this point, but all three former Iowa preps have the chance to be very good starters in the future. In addition, Iowa just got a verbal commitment from highly rated Iowa prep Chris Felder.
As good as the future looks, this is the time to start seeing major improvement in the OL and the Iowa Offense. Even though Purdue and Oklahoma won lots of games last year throwing the ball, winning football games on a consistent basis still comes down to being able to run the ball on offense, stop the run on defense, and not turn the ball over, especially in the Big Ten. Iowa started to stuff the run on defense in the last four games last year, but this is the year that they must also be able to run with enough consistency on offense to provide balance to score points, move the ball, and keep the Iowa Defense off the field. Being bigger, stronger, and more experienced should really help this team play at a higher level with more confidence. If they can just stay relatively healthy with some good luck along the way, the glory days might be returning very quickly.
Quotes on the Offensive Line from Media Day (8/10/2001)
"Going into spring practice, the coaches told me that I was going to play a lot of guard. But of all of the practices, I played right tackle, except one at guard."
"I almost always played guard before spring practice, so I feel very comfortable at both tackle and guard now."
"The biggest difference from tackle to guard in college is that a tackle has to be a better pass blocker since they are on an island. Both positions require ability at run blocking, but getting used to blocking on an island at tackle is different."
"They asked me to do it (moving to center). They must see something in me. It is a tough challenge to replace A.J. Blazek and his knowledge and great leadership, but it helps that he is still around to help me out."
"Kevin Worthy is still going to long snap. I think shotgun formation snaps will be the most you will probably see out of me this year. That is about as far as I can get it back there."
"Snapping and playing center is brand new to me. The first couple of days of spring ball were difficult, which is understandable. After that I got the hang of it, and by the end of spring ball I was feeling pretty confident. Plus, I have had the whole summer to work on it."
"When I was a freshman at tackle, I was so young and inexperienced that I depended on the center making the alignment and blocking calls like nobody else did. But at guard last year I learned a lot of stuff and A.J. taught a lot of stuff. We had to know what he was doing, so playing guard next to him has made the transition much easier than a tackle to a center or a tight end to a center."
"I thought the game was fast when I was at tackle, but guys are right on top of you when you are at center. The nose guard is right on top of you, but I know so much more about how to block certain guys in certain situations compared to a couple of years ago."
"Leadership shouldn't be much different now that I am at center. I would like to think I should have more leadership abilities because I have been playing for a couple of years. What is great about our situation is that most of the guys have been playing for the last two years."
"We have 10 guys with experience. We have 10 guys with good experience. There is no substitute for experience."
Coach Kirk Ferentz:
"I think the real key on offense is going to be the offensive line. We knew two seasons ago we were going to be a little thin, probably not the right adjective to use. Last year, we felt like we were in decent shape, but we were hit hard by the injury bug and that impeded our progress."
"Offensive line and quarterback are the two toughest positions for a true freshman to come in and play."
"We haven't had the capabilities to run the football the way we'd like to the past two seasons. That's something that has been on our agenda. It's something we work on daily and I think we are in a position that we can realistically achieve that balance of pass and run."